We are enormously proud that one of our partner charities, the Pole Pole Foundation, was a finalist in the first Earthshot Prize.
This new prize, launched by Prince William last year, aims to accelerate progress to protect the environment over the next decade, taking inspiration from US President Kennedy’s ‘Moonshot’ approach in the 1960s.
John Kahekwa and the Pole Pole Foundation were finalists in the protect and restore nature category for their work over three decades to protect the critically endangered Grauer’s Gorillas and support the sustainable development of the communities living around the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
They have launched some innovative projects to protect gorillas by supporting communities; John discovered early on in his conservation career that ‘empty stomachs have no ears’. When people are hungry and don’t have a job, they are forced to poach and cut down trees just to survive and feed their family.
For example, they have launched a Spirulina programme to feed malnourished children; the Spirulina algae is grown in a pond in a greenhouse and harvested each day, then spread on ‘cookies’ (more like pitta breads than cookies, having tried one, but kids like cookies, so the name sounds more appealing!) and given to children.
Within three weeks the visible signs of malnutrition disappear and after a couple of months the children are fully fit and healthy; Spirulina really is a superfood.
But Spirulina is just one project from the Pole Pole Foundation, their impact is much bigger; through John’s three decades of experience as a Ranger, as a member of the community, as an entrepreneur and as the head of a small charity working in one of the most challenging locations on earth, he has built up a unique understanding of what is needed for successful conservation and why so many ecosystems and species remain under threat.
And that is where the blueprint comes in.
Through the POPOF partnership with our co-founder Dr Rich at King’s College London, John’s knowledge and expertise has been globalised into four core pillars that form a blueprint for protecting a national park anywhere in the world.
It’s been described as the most valuable document in the conservation sector.
It gets to the heart of why so many conservation projects are still struggling, despite decades of work, and sets out how to protect and restore nature from the ground up.
The four core principles are the following:
Support communities: local people need a stake in conservation. If they are poor they will poach, if they benefit from conservation they will protect. Simple projects that ‘fill empty stomachs’ can have a major impact on conservation outcomes.
Law enforcement: organised criminal groups and nefarious business actors illegally exploit national parks and the flora and fauna within them. An effective national park needs well-trained, well-equipped Rangers who are paid fairly so they can stay in their role and support their families. And they need information and intelligence to inform where they deploy in the park for maximum effect.
Monetise the park: conservation needs funding, both for projects and also to ensure that governments and communities benefit economically from conservation in the same way they would if the park was converted for industry or agriculture. Eco-tourism is the go-to solution for this, but it rarely generates enough money and is prone to collapse as we have seen with Covid. Finding more ways to generate funding for conservation is key, what John calls being a ‘Conserprenuer’
Human resource: we need people with industry and law enforcement experience to work in the conservation sector, we can’t rely just on people with zoology and environmental science degrees to do the myriad work required to protect nature. Finding the right sets of skills and bringing in people with experience and high quality skill sets is critical for conservation success.
We’re working with the Pole Pole Foundation to expand this blueprint and get more and more parks and organisations to adopt the principles and apply the key learnings form the blueprint to improve their conservation work.
Our board game Conservation Crisis sets out the first step; understanding the problem faced by conservationists and starting to see how it can be solved. We’ve made that family-friendly, so anyone can play, learn and have fun, and the work we’re now doing is taking that a step further to teach people the key skills and approaches needed to solve those problems in the real world.
That’s all part of a big effort to share a blueprint to protect and restore nature and in the process to make extinction a thing of the past and not a nightmare for the future.